TORONTO -- It had been 103 days.
The amount of time from when I was at Rogers Place in Edmonton the night the Stanley Cup was awarded until Saturday night’s visit to Scotiabank Arena for the Toronto Maple Leafs' intra-squad scrimmage.
This was the first access any reporters were granted to watch Leafs training camp because of provincial health restrictions. That meant four days worth of practices were held behind closed doors before word came down Friday that Ontario had officially accepted the NHL’s protocols to stage the upcoming season here.
The Leafs did what they could to fill in the blanks, with head coach Sheldon Keefe providing a detailed recap of practice before each of his media availabilities. But it’s amazing how little feel you truly get for camp when you can’t see it with your own eyes.
Saturday’s scrimmage carried no consequences, but it offered the first opportunity to start measuring growth and change before the puck officially drops on Toronto’s season.
William Nylander was the most impactful player on the ice, for my money, with an honourable mention to Mitchell Marner. On that note, the Joe Thornton-Auston Matthews-Marner line was as much fun as expected. Newcomer Mikko Lehtonen showed some nice offensive instincts, but it remains to be seen how quickly he’ll adjust to the increased speed and smaller rink dimensions. Oh, and holy mama can teenager Nick Robertson ever shoot the puck.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 10, 2021
Let’s be real: This was more sloppy and less intense than what we’ll see here Wednesday when the Montreal Canadiens visit on opening night. However the final score, 6-3, could be a preview of what the early portion of the regular season has in store after a league-wide sprint to return and no exhibition games.
As with everything during the pandemic, covering a game in this manner is actually starting to feel familiar. It went incredibly smooth.
Reporters had to fill out a health screening questionnaire before entering the arena, scanning a QR code and answering a series of questions. I was assigned seat 13 in row 1 of suite 4 in the gondola across from the usual press box -- a good 15 feet away from my Sportsnet colleague Shawn McKenzie and much farther than that from any of the other media members in attendance.
Besides the empty stands, the in-game presentation matched exactly what you’d normally expect. Arena host Mike Ross even started the night by saying “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Scotiabank Arena” before rhyming off the usual warnings about pucks over the glass and the fact the building offers no re-entry privileges.
Once the game started, the pumped-in crowd noise seemed much louder than what we heard here during the NHL bubble in August. When John Tavares opened the scoring, the familiar “Hall and Oates” goal song blared over the speakers -- a reminder that some things haven’t changed.
They’ve been made. They were essentially made before this camp began.
So it mattered not that Rasmus Sandin skated well and looked strong in his first game action in 10 months, or that Robertson’s power-play rocket was accompanied by a more powerful stride than we saw in the NHL bubble. Or that Adam Brooks scored with a nice release.
They’re all on the outside looking in, just as they have been since camp started.
“In terms of changes, I don’t think you’ll see much of that,” said Keefe.
Sandin and Robertson appear to be knocking at the door after being bumped down by European free agents that were handed an opportunity ahead of them -- Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov, respectively. But Keefe said he can only be so patient with the newcomers because of the compressed 56-game schedule so the kids should stay ready in the on-deck circle.
Beyond that, the most intriguing lineup question surrounds Pierre Engvall. He took the place of an ailing Alex Kerfoot on the forechecking line, but committed some turnovers in the scrimmage that drew his coach’s ire.
“I expect better from Pierre, to be honest, just in terms of his play with the puck,” said Keefe. “We’ve got to just kind of redirect him towards the other end of the ice. But I thought he skated, he worked well, it was nice to see him score a big goal -- I think we might be coming up, if not past, the one-year anniversary of his last goal. So it was good to see that and get the confidence going in that sense.
“I was hoping for better from him.”
Kerfoot is described as day-to-day, but has missed more than half of the abbreviated training camp. That may force Keefe to dress Engvall in the opener and if he’s not comfortable playing him between Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman, it will probably require a significant juggling of the lines.
Manny’s power play
Keefe has turned the power play responsibilities over to Manny Malhotra, the assistant coach he hired away from the Vancouver Canucks this off-season, and there are some significant differences to how things are being structured compared to last year.
Most notably, the Leafs are starting with two more balanced units rather than loading up PP1. They’re also putting more of an emphasis on trying to create havoc in front of the goaltender.
“With Manny coming over here with his plan, prioritizing the net front was something that he wanted to do right from the start so you see that with [Wayne] Simmonds on one unit and [Zach] Hyman on the other,” said Keefe. “So we want to give that an opportunity to go.”
In Saturday’s scrimmage, here’s how the units were deployed:
Matthews - Thornton - Marner
Nylander - Tavares - Robertson (place-holding for Jason Spezza)
It’s going to take some time for chemistry to build, although Nylander and Robertson each scored in man advantage situations. On the top unit, Matthews and Marner had the freedom to swap sides and worked the puck around nicely with Rielly but didn’t involve Thornton very much in the bumper position.
“Auston and Mitch on the flanks are elite,” said Rielly.
The goalie dance
The echoes of Oct. 2, 2018 can still be heard in these parts today.
Kyle Dubas hasn’t forgotten what it was like to simultaneously lose his projected No. 3 and No. 4 goaltenders on the eve of that season -- with Curtis McElhinney (Carolina) and Calvin Pickard (Philadelphia) both plucked from the waiver wire -- and it’s informed the Leafs' approach to the position now.
Toronto is trying to thread a fine needle before setting its opening night roster.
Michael Hutchinson was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage after being placed on waivers earlier in the day. Should he clear Sunday, it would guarantee the Leafs a No. 3 option behind Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell that could be designated for a taxi squad assignment.
Ideally, they’d like to send Hutchinson to the American Hockey League with Aaron Dell ahead of him in the No. 3 role, but there’s no guarantee Dell will get through waivers himself. He’s an experienced backup with more than 100 games of NHL experience (and slightly better career numbers than Hutchinson) who is on a manageable $800,000, one-year deal.
You have to believe the New Jersey Devils are searching for goaltending depth after Corey Crawford’s abrupt retirement. Plus every NHL team is required to carry at least three healthy options at the position throughout the 2020-21 season -- and many of them could accommodate Dell’s salary under the cap ceiling while keeping three goalies on the active roster.
That isn’t likely to happen in Toronto, where the Leafs are managing a tight cap situation. It points to Dell being placed on waivers either Sunday or Monday with the organization hoping he clears and joins the taxi squad.
The uncertainty helps explain why both Dell and Hutchinson were signed to one-way contracts as free agents in October.
“We did that before we knew what the schedule was exactly going to look like and we just wanted to make sure that we had as much depth as possible,” Dubas said at the outset of training camp. “Not knowing the way that things were going to be, we just felt that having as many capable NHL goaltenders was going to be important.”
Once bitten, twice shy.
The new guys
This is a different group.
You throw Thornton, Simmonds and Zach Bogosian into a dressing room and you’re going to be adding some flavour. A sharp spike in career games played, not to mention chirps- and chatter-per-60. A big goal of this Leafs off-season was about changing the personality of the group.
“I’ve noticed a tremendous difference in that regard,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe.
Thornton is the biggest kid in blue and white, celebrating a goal by Marner during Saturday’s scrimmage as though the building was full of screaming fans and it actually meant something.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 10, 2021
It was no coincidence that Thornton got assigned a dressing room stall beside Tavares, a more serious lead-by-example type of captain. He can help shoulder the load. And as much as Jumbo is celebrated for his carefree approach to the game, he’s not afraid to speak his mind when he feels a teammate needs to be held to account -- or the coach, as he gave Keefe the gears a couple times for skipping his line in Saturday’s scrimmage.
They won’t have to stitch a letter on his sweater for No. 97 to become part of the leadership group here.
“He can lean on me as much as he wants,” Thornton said of Tavares. “I can be vocal with him in the locker-room and just -- you know, for me, just help. All I want to do is help guys play a long, long time. If any advice that I have to share with them [I’ll do it].”
Keefe pointed out that it’s easy to have good spirit among the group before any games have been lost. The new veterans have been tasked with helping make sure it stays that way.
The safety game
Lest anyone forget the most feared opponent this season, reminders are everywhere around the NHL.
The Dallas Stars have closed their practice facility for several days and are going to see at least their first three-regular season games rescheduled after six players and two staff members produced positive COVID-19 test results. Out of caution, the Columbus Blue Jackets cancelled practice Friday while the Pittsburgh Penguins called off a planned Saturday skate.
Toronto’s coaching staff has had players on high alert since before Christmas, reasoning that any outbreak in the week or two leading up to camp would negatively affect preparations for the regular season.
Caution is the word.
“We’ve got masks on all the time around here, we get tested every day,” said Thornton. “During meetings we’re seven, eight feet apart from each other so we’re keeping it real tight.”
Keefe stressed that they want to be mindful of doing their part in the community after getting an exemption to play out of Scotiabank Arena this season. But it goes deeper than that. The lesson from the NFL and NBA -- where, for example, the Philadelphia 76ers got beaten Saturday while only having seven healthy players available -- is that there’s competitive concerns at play here, too.
“We have talked a great deal about that,” said Keefe. “We’re trying to be as mindful of it as we can be with where we have our meetings. We’ve created more meeting space so we can spread people out and reduce any high-risk contacts and stuff like that.”
They’re back, and diligence is required to be at their best.